W e s t H a m United 2 -2 M a n c h e s t e r U n i t e d
Is there anything left for Manchester United to play for? United only need some combination of their own wins and losses and Manchester City losses and draws that make seven points to clinch the Premier League championship. Rhetorically, however, the players say that they want to win the Premier League in historic style–despite these dropped points–and overtake Chelsea’s record of 95 points in 2004-05. So there was plenty to play for when Sir Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils stepped out from the tunnel at the Upton Park Cockney noise cauldron against the claret-and-blue kings of the Mile End Road. The fact is that’s never easy at the Boleyn Ground. Those who think Planet Ingerland goes soft South of Wolverhampton need to think again.
West Ham were definitely intent on making it difficult for the Red Devils. Well managed by the veteran Sam Allardyce this season, they have bounced back from a season in the Championship Division with a visible hunger. Performing with a consistently visible edge, the Hammers play consistently well at home, maintaining a position in mid table. Allardyce, maintaining his same-old predilection for putting teams of overachieving, long-ball bruisers out there, just as he has previously done in stints at Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers and much less successfully at Newcastle United, gets the job done by recruiting cheap veterans and young big club rejects. And although West Ham are not at all easy on the eye for their fanatic fans, their lack of finesse has been countered by the kind of ruthless acumen which keeps the fans fear of relegation at bay. A lot of Hammer fans don’t like Allardyce’s style but beggars can’t be choosers in the ruthless jungle that is the Premiership and, more importantly, his players are behind him. Big Sam’s tactics against his old friendly rival, Sir Alex Ferguson saw Mohammed Diamé and Kevin Nolan play high and hard against United’s defensive midfielders, Phil Jones and Michael Carrick, while their loan striker, big Andy Carroll, used his huge body as a battering room against United’s goalkeeper David De Gea and an aging center back combination of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Allardyce has made West Ham both truculent and competitive. With the referee Lee Probert not even the slightest bit interested in blowing his whistle, Carroll went ruthlessly about feeding the three a diet of head-butts, elbows and WWF-style grappling. Accompanied by an aerial bombardment from wingers Ricardo Vaz Té and Matty Jarvis, who took turns humiliating United’s past-it left back Patrice Evra to the point where he resembled the Gimp in Pulp Fiction, United realized they were truly up against it from the get-go.
Indeed, Carroll lads put the stick out there so ruthlessly well that Ferguson spent much of the match verbally haranguing the match’s fourth official, André Marriner, and his cloth-eared boss, the referee Lee Probert, especially after Carroll rendered him glassy-eyed with a sucker-elbow after a 45th-minute corner. Indeed, De Gea had his busiest day ever in a United kit after an early Carroll shot smashed the outside of the far post and venomous snakelike machinations of Vaz Té saw the Spanish custodian make two brilliant saves.
United were not so much on the ropes as being calculatedly lazy and laid back early on. Such tactics are always risky for a team schooled to play in a run-and-gun-style, however. Seventeen minutes in, after a lackadaisical Rooney lost the ball in the opposition box, Diamé stole away with the ball, and played a pair of one-twos with Jarvis, who fed Carroll. Carroll steamrollered Ferdinand, simply shrugging the veteran defender off before slipping the ball back out to Jarvis on the wing. The clever ex-Wolves winger then fired it back toward De Gea’s far post. Diamé met the ball, but fired only a mistimed chip toward goal. Meanwhile, brushing aside Evra, Carroll charged in, pushing the loose ball low toward Vaz Té, who dived to ground and forced a header past a flailing De Gea..
United were never on the ropes. per sé, but with Rooney poor up front and seemingly much less comfortable than in his masterful midfield display against Stoke at the weekend, Phil Jones and Michael Carrick were simply out hustled by Diamé and the ageless Kevin Nolan. When the equalizer did come, in the 30th minute, it was a bit of a surprise and definitely against the run of play. Mostly wasted on the left wing, Shinji Kagawa was finally cheeky enough to dance his way inside and pirouette hither and thither with the ball before flicking a perfect dish for a simple side-footed finish by Antonio Valencia from two feet out
In the second half, clearly coached by Ferguson to maintain their slow-build tactics with a view to wearing the Hammers to a frazzle, United slowly began to dominate the rest of the match. Yet football is a game full of ironies and despite owning the lion’s share of quality and possession, Fergie’s boys walked into a custard pie in the 55th minute when Vaz Tê and Guy Demel shucked and jived past a jelly-legged Evra before working the ball to a waiting Mohammed Diamé at the corner of the penalty area. Diamé spun in and around Rooney before casually firing an exquisite curved left-footed shot past De Gea to make it 2-1.
Dominant from then on, it was just a matter of time before Van Persie scored his 25th goal of the season. Just how Shinji Kagawa managed to nip into the box in the 77th minute and give Reid, Collins and Nolan the slip it’s difficult to tell. Nevertheless, a Kagawa shot bounced off James Collins, ricocheting off both posts before a marauding ever-so-slightly offside Robin Van Persie blasted home the equalizer. It was a bad call from the assistant referee but clearly far less shocking than the decision by the collected officials to repeatedly let Andy Carroll try to turn David De Gea into a vegetable. Indeed, it was sort of amusing to watch Sam Allardyce impersonate a red-faced toddler dispossessed of his toys in a way that we are more used to seeing happen with the Dark Lord Ferg on occasions.
With a Monday home game looming against Aston Villa at Old Trafford, United will be facing yet another team fighting for survival with its back to the wall. Coupled with a looming trip to the Emirates to face another favorite of the officials in a schizophrenic Arsenal side. Reaching a goal of 96 points still, somehow, seems to the least of our worries.
Most encouraging of all on a so-so day, however, was the splendid bravery of David De Gea. Battered and humiliated by Everon’s Marouane Fellaini in the first match of the season, the young Spaniard has gone through the process of a ruthless apprenticeship this season. Well and truly bullied by the gorilla-style tactics of Andy Carroll, De Gea took his punishment well, avoided retaliation and stood his ground. Still doubted by a few cynical blowhards, no doubt, De Gea looks to now have earned his laurels as an apt successor to the legendary Edwin Van Der Sar.